Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: "Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry" by William W. Davenport

It has been my practice to confine book review posts to books that I would recommend to a friend as being enjoyable or instructive – or, preferably, both. In that light, the book I'm about to discuss, William Wyatt Davenport's Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry, is troubling. It does indeed present an enjoyable story. And, reading it does prove instructive...but not in the way one usually hopes. The lesson of the book is that some biographies may be works of fiction clad in a thin layer of verisimilitude, and that a healthy skepticism is a useful tool for the reader of history.

I wanted to learn more about Lawrence Sperry, as the stories commonly told about his brief and colorful life consistently rendered him as a fascinating character. What better approach, thought I, than to lay hands on a copy of his biography? This was readily accomplished with the aid of a used book vendor, facilitated by the good folks at Amazon.com. But very soon after opening the book I encountered a warning sign. What does one make of a biographer who, in the Acknowledgements at the front of the work, says this:
"As in every life that has been lived to the hilt, there are hiatuses, documents that have been lost or suppressed, the ambiguities of reality, questions that have not been answered, problems that have not been solved. In such cases, in my attempt to gather up the radiance of a dynamic personality, I have been authorized to indulge in some judicious speculation and have occasionally asserted poetic truths where actual facts were missing." (emphasis added)

I had to read that twice. It took a while for the realization to solidify that the author was saying, "When I didn't have solid evidence to tell the subject's story, I just made stuff up." Really? At this point I went directly to the back of the volume where I found no list of sources and no end notes...just a somewhat sparse index. The conclusion became obvious: nothing in this book can be trusted. Any assertion made by the author is just as likely to be a "poetic truth" as an "actual fact".

Lawrence Burst Sperry deserved better than this.

Some examples illustrate the scope of the problem. The book tells a tale (one can't say "the tale") of the development of the gyro-stabilizer (precursor of the autopilot) for use in aircraft. It would have you believe that Lawrence, with minimal involvement of his father, the noted engineer Elmer A. Sperry, designed, developed and demonstrated the apparatus completely on his own. His native genius is depicted as a perfect substitute for the engineering education he regarded as unnecessary. But other sources cast doubt on this charming narrative.

A biographical memoir on Elmer A. Sperry by J.C. Hunsaker (published in 1954 by the National Academy of Sciences) has this to say:

"As (Elmer) Sperry was tied up with...other activities, he called in his friend Hannibal C. Ford, an extremely clever designer of intricate apparatus. Ford and Sperry together started on the design of a gyro compass... As a sideline they designed a small gyro stabilizer for an airplane..."
This was in 1910. Hunsaker goes on to say:
"In 1913 conditions seemed ripe for resuming the airplane
stabilizer work started but discontinued in 1910. Sperry knew Glenn Curtiss at the Aero Club in New York, got in touch
with him, and arranged to send his son Lawrence to Curtiss's shop at Hammondsport. Lawrence Sperry had already built
and flown his own airplane and later was awarded F.A.I. Pilot's License No. 11.

The Aero Club of France announced an international competition for a safe airplane with a prize of 50,000 francs to be awarded to the winner. Curtiss, in whose flying boat the gyro stabilizer had been tested, persuaded Sperry to send Lawrence to Paris to compete for the prize. The demonstration flight was made in June 1914.

As the plane flew low past the judges' stand the mechanic climbed out on the wing and Lawrence stood up in the open
cockpit raising both hands above his head. This was indeed convincing; nothing like it had ever been seen before. He won the prize."

The patent application for the airplane stabilizer was filed on 17 July 1914 and led to the issuance of US patent 1,368,226. The sole inventor named on the patent is Elmer A. Sperry. In addition, the work to develop the airplane stabilizer was honored with the award of the prestigious Collier Trophy for 1914. One name is engraved on the trophy for that year – that of Elmer A. Sperry.

Was Lawrence involved in, and important to, the project? Most certainly. Was he the driving force behind it? It would seem not.

Another example revolves around the origins of the aircraft type most often associated with Lawrence Sperry – and the one that eventually took his life. Known most commonly as the Sperry Messenger, it got its start in life, according to the author, when:

"Billy Mitchell...wanted an inexpensive, maneuverable little single-seat plane that the Army could use as a training ship for pursuit aviation. This coincided precisely with Lawrence's desire for a single-seater sports plane. He went to his drawing board and designed a small biplane whose lower wing was almost unnoticeable. Delighted with the design, Billy Mitchell ordered three of the planes, the first sports plane in American aviation, for the War Department. This plane was the famous Sperry Messenger; it was Billy Mitchell who gave it it's name." (Emphasis added.)
But other sources tell a different tale. For example, K.O. Eckland's authoritative Aerofiles site says:
"M-1 Messenger, M-1A, MAT (Verville-Sperry) 1920 = Army liaison and utility. Designed at McCook Field by Alfred Verville; aka Engineering Division M-1. Ailerons on all wings. POP: 22 as military M-1 and 20 as M-1A, plus 1 civil sport version that failed to spark any public interest, and the idea was never pursued."
Did Lawrence Sperry go "to his drawing board" and give birth to the Messenger? He absolutely did not. The talented Alfred Verville, working for the Army, designed the airplane and the Lawrence B. Sperry Airplane Co. was then hired to build it. (The Smithsonian, by the way, agrees.)

There are other statements at variance with accepted facts throughout the book. The text includes many instances of direct quotes from conversations where only two people were present and no record could have been made. More of those "poetic truths", I suppose.

The question I'm left with is, "Why?" To what end does the author steal the glory of Elmer Sperry, Alfred Verville and others and assign it to Lawrence Sperry? He had plenty of his own glory as the legitimate inventor of the life-saving gyroscopic turn-and-bank indicator (see US 1,433,102), as developer of major improvements in pack parachutes for pilots, as a central part of the project that developed the first "cruise missile", as a renowned aviator and proselytizer for flying in its early days. And yes, even as the spiritual founder of the Mile High Club (with essential assistance from Mrs. Waldo Polk). Why would the author risk his credibility, with all of this to work with?

Perhaps the clue lies in the use (seen above, in the quoted segment about "speculation" and "poetic truths") of the word authorized. I'd suggest that the author was not free to write his own book. Someone else had to be considered and satisfied. The story that was told had to be, at the end of the day, the authorized version. What a shame.

If you want to learn about Lawrence B. Sperry, go ahead and read this book. Then verify anything of particular interest through other credible sources. That's the only way you'll sieve out the "actual facts" and leave behind the "poetic truths."

1 comment:

David F. LeVan said...

After many years of interest and research of the Verville/Sperry Messenger I came across this book Gyro and recently finished reading it. I did find answers to some questions and unknown facts I was looking for in this informative book. But I too take exception to some of the statements. Especially the "went to the drawing board" and "lower wing was almost unnoticeable". The word "unnoticeable" makes no sense and is not a characteristic of the Messenger airplane. Alfred Verville is the designer of the Messenger, not Lawrence Sperry.
There are other statements I found a little hard to believe which I can only accept as "poetic truth".
All in all I must say that this book required and contains an enormous amount of research and documentation of the times and the man Lawrence Sperry. It a very informative look at early aviation history and the life of this man, his family and associates.